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Severance of $300k demanded

Last updated 05:00 28/07/2013

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Leaked emailsreveal the former boss of one of the country's largest public tertiary institutions is seeking more than $300,000 in severance pay.

Former Te Wananga o Aotearoa boss Bentham Ohia is embroiled in an acrimonious employment dispute with the wananga, which he ran for seven years, after it decided in April not to renew his contract. Former Maori TV boss Jim Mather is now in the $300,000-a-year job.

It is one of at least two current personal grievances involving former wananga senior managers, though the cases are reportedly unrelated.

The emails also reveal a litany of threats from Ohia's representative in the dispute, Willie Te Aho, against the institution which he says he will "attack . . . from the inside and the outside for as long as it takes".

Te Aho has called for an investigation into the running of Te Mana Whakahaere - the institution's governing council - which he says used flawed process when it decided not to renew Ohia's contract.

The Tertiary Education Commission and Ministry of Education have been called before the Maori Affairs Select Committee to discuss the appointment process for wananga and polytech CEOs.

It is understood that at one stage Ohia asked for as much as $750,000 in severance pay, but an email from Te Aho shows he eventually demanded $250,000 to resolve the personal grievance and $60,000 for legal costs.

The emails also show Ohia tried to avoid an Employment Relations Authority hearing in favour of a "hou hou i te rongo" or reconciliation process, which the chairman of the wananga's governing board, Richard Batley, declined, saying they were bound by the Employment Relations Act.

Batley wrote in an email on July 12 that the wananga "will not be intimidated by his threats"

The parties have since agreed to enter mediation.

Te Aho said if his demands were not met he would file an injunction against Mather's appointment, seek a select committee review of the wananga and its governing council's decisions and lodge a Waitangi Tribunal complaint on behalf of wananga staff,

He would also "target council members in other forums that they belong to, to hold them accountable for their decisions".

"I will then . . . attack the [Te Wananga o Aotearoa] council from the inside and the outside for as long as it takes."

Batley said in an email that replacing Ohia was a process "that has brought about strong emotions and put a strain on both internal and external relationships".

Te Aho refused to comment on the dispute or his threats, saying it was the subject of mediation.

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"It's been acrimonious and that's why there was a personal grievance," he said.

He said $310,000 was not a large sum. "If you look at the process of him not being reappointed, and if he had been reappointed, than that figure could easily have been over $1.5 million so it depends what context you're using to form your view."

Labour's Shane Jones said a number of people had raised the issue. He said the amount sought was "enough to make you gag".

"Whichever way you cut it, it's very unpleasant."

It was "highly doubtful" the Maori Affairs Select Committee would want to play the part of an employment tribunal and get involved in the dispute, he said.

Tertiary Education Union organiser Dean Scott said it dealt with an above-average number of employment issues at the wananga which he said was difficult to get information out of.

A wananga spokesman would not comment, saying the dispute was in mediation but denied claims it had issues with HR procedures.

- Sunday Star Times

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